Thursday, 27 May 2010

National Museums and a 'shared future'

Today was one of the busiest for some time.  I started off by travelling down to the NSMC offices in Armagh for an NSMC meeting in relation to Waterways Ireland and then a second meeting in relation to the cross-border language body.

Nelson McCausland MLA & Pat Carey TD
At a time when the tourist industry is under pressure, partly as a result of the economic climate, it was encouraging to hear about the growth in the number of hire boats and private boats on our waterways, both in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic.

Much of the day was then taken up with interviews about my letter to the chair of the trustees at National Museums Northern Ireland.  The letter was sent to the trustees about two weeks ago and it identified the promotion of a 'shared future' as a priority.  That future must involve a recognition of diversity and respect for diversity.  I believe very strongly that all public bodies must take account of such matters as good relations, equality and human rights and that it is my responsibility as minister to remind arms-length bodies of these things.

That was the context for my letter which asked the trustees to consider the representation of the Orange Order and othen fraternal organisations.  In a meeting with some of the trustees last month I had highlighted the omission of any recongition of other fraternal organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

I also referred to the omission of any mention of the Ulster-Scots, including the Hamilton and Montgomery settlement of 1606, when Sir James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery, the 'founding fathers' of the Ulster-Scots, arrived in Ulster from Ayrshire.

The third issue was the consideration of alternative views on the origin of the universe and the origin of life.

The leaking of the letter was disappointing and showed a lack of respect for the trustees and the museum.  Moreover it was interesting that the leak came just a few days after a meeting between representatives of the Orange Order and a senior member of the museum staff.  I intend to coment on each of these issues in more detail over the coming days.

This evening I attended the annual school play by the children of Malvern Primary School in the Lower Shankill area.  The children performed really well and the play was Cinderella Rockerfella, which is a modern panto-style reworking of the classic story of Cinderella.


  1. Mr McCausland:

    I would like to praise your willingness to allow critical comments on you to appear on your blog, and to engage with some of those criticisms.

    However I note that you did not respond to my query (though you did to another, later, commenter) yesterday about your letter to NMNI.

    My only concern about your request for exhibits on the Orange Order and Ulster-Scots - which are culturally relevant to some people in Northern Ireland - is that it is partisan and reflects the content of this blog which seems to elevate unionist culture to the detriment of nationalist culture. I do not consider myself either a unionist or a nationalist, but your job as culture minister is to represent all the people of Northern Ireland. As such your overwhelming concentration on unionist culture, while a legitimate personal interest of yours and clearly one on which you are passionate and knowledgeable, is inappropriate. Can you imagine the response if Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, promoted male cultural achievements and ignored female?

    The other, and more significant, issue is the request for museums to carry exhibits on alternative views on the origins of the universe. While it would be perfectly appropriate for these to be included in a section on historical creation myths, my impression is that this is not your intention. You say that many people in Northern Ireland believe in some form of creationism. (In fact the figure is 25%, as seen in this survey, which is a small minority, and only slightly higher than the 22% for the UK as a whole who, in a survey in 2006, believed in 'young Earth creationism'.) Be that as it may, scientific evidence is not decided by public opinion. Evolution by natural selection is as well established as the theory of gravity. There is no merit in having exhibits on creationism as a genuine alternative to evolution, any more than there is merit in having exhibits on astrology as an alternative to astronomy, or phrenology as an alternative to neurosurgery.

    I would therefore ask you to maintain a distinction between your personal views and your public pronouncements in your role as Minister for Culture.

  2. The history of the Montgomerys is quite remarkable, Sir Hugh, later 1st Viscount Montgomery of the Great Ardes, having founded Newtownards.

    I was researching for an article about Grey Abbey House (where of course the Montgomerys still live) and discovered so much fascinating history I never really knew before.

    Most of the present Montgomerys are interred with the walls of the Abbey itself.

  3. John - Your first point is based on the presumption that I only referred to the coverage of the Orange Order. When I met some of the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland, I referred to the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH was the power base of Joe Devlin and the Nationalists and both organisations have played a significant role in the history of Ulster. For that reason they should both be adequately and appropriately reflected in the musuem. Again in my letter I referred to the 'Orange Order and other fraternal organisations'. I am sure you will appreciate that my reference to both the Orange Order and the AOH demonstrates that I was not acting in a partisan way.

    Secondly, as regards the Ulster-Scots, I particularly highlighted the omission of a reference to the arrival of the first Ulster-Scots settlers in county Down in 1606, the year before the Flight of the Earls and several years before the Plantation of Ulster. Is it right to airbrush out of history this seminal event?

    Thirdly, as regards the natural history section of the museum I simply asked the Trustees to consider how they might recognise and accommodate alternative views within the museum.

    Underpinning all of this is my determination to promote a shared future, based on recognition of and respect for diversity, as well as a commitment to good relations and the implementation of human rights and equality.

  4. John, it was reported at least in the unionist oriented News Letter that Mr McCausland rightly suggested the Orange Order AND AOH so not partisan at all. As to creationism I am pretty sure the survey you point to is out by a long way not only that but your assertion that evolution `is as well established as the theory of gravity.` is perhaps correct in that it is perceived to be so but in terms of evidence and science much less so with various prominent scientist and journals reevaluating what many of the general public consider to be evolution as being false and / or quite different of what is commonly perceived and taught in schools.

    Evolution: hacking back the tree of life
    * 13 June 2007 by Laura Spinney
    * New Scientist Magazine issue 2608.

    IF YOU want to know how all living things are related, don't bother looking in any textbook that's more than a few years old. Chances are that the tree of life you find there will be wrong. Since they began delving into DNA, biologists have been finding that organisms with features that look alike are often not as closely related as they had thought. These are turbulent times in the world of phylogeny, yet there has been one rule that evolutionary biologists felt they could cling to: the amount of complexity in the living world has always been on the increase. Now even that is in doubt. "

  5. Mr McCausland, thank you for responding and for pointing out the inclusion of the AOH in your letter; I apologise for my omission.

    Kilsally, like you, I would like to think that the survey figures are inaccurate (though I would like them to be lower than they are, not higher), but I can't suggest that they are without evidence. (The requirement of evidence, I suppose, is what separates the creationist from the rationalist generally.) I didn't choose a survey that matched my views; I chose the first one I found when I googled for 'creationism northern ireland'. It was carried out by IPSOS/Mori, a reputable polling organisation, on behalf of Theos, a think tank which comes from a pro-faith position (believing that "society can only flourish if faith is given the space to do so"). I would therefore not expect there to be any anti-faith skewing of the figures. You can read the full report here (PDF link).

    Unfortunately I was unable to read the piece by Laura Spinney, as it requires a subscription to New Scientist. However I did find this related piece by her, which makes clear that she is not remotely resiling from the fact of evolution but simply arguing that the evolution of life on earth may be even more complex than Darwin proposed.

    I would certainly agree with the opening sentence of the extract posted above: "If you want to know how all living things are related, don't bother looking in any textbook that's more than a few years old." Creationists rely on a textbook which is over two thousand years old.

  6. Did you mean "Pat Carey"? Oops.